Refactoring Emacs’ Org-mode, GTD, Information Capture, Good Data, 6 W’s, & the Kitchen Sink

This post can use a serious refactoring all by itself. I won’t. This is more of a thought experiment, internal discussion open to all, and a mild rambling brain dump. If anyone gets any value out of it (including me), excelsior!

I use EmacsOrg-mode for my GTD workflow. Emacs is ubiquitous for me on my computers. Org-mode is an add-on that I place a lot of stock in for information management and GTD. Mobileorg, the method/app that gets the Org-mode data to and from smartphones and tablets, is installed on my mobile devices.

Right now I use Org-mode mostly for work. Everything is in three basic files: for capture, for note handling, and for task handling. These are more theoretical than practical. For example, I configured the org-capture function in org-mode to completely miss the inbox and place captured notes and tasks into their respective files. They should go instead into the inbox where I daily and weekly review and refile.

I also need my personal life captured in here. The line between personal and business time is beyond blurry. It’s more of a wind blown wave in the sand. Because of that and the highly similar nature of my day – it’s usual if not common for me to step out of the office for an hour or so to run an errand while I can be up the wee hours in my home office or hotel room working on budgets – I need to reflect my whole life in there and obliterate the microscopic distinction between the two. Plus my work life is generally more interesting of the two these days. Correcting that is a task in the new system.

This leaves me with a few open questions I’ve been pondering for a spell:

  1. Is org-mode the right choice?
  2. Is a one large file approach, several files approach, or a file per topic/project approach going to work out the best for me based on my current understanding and assumptions?
  3. How will I share this information with others as needed?
  4. How important are contexts in this new mix? For instance, will I care if I’m in the office or at home when doing most tasks? Do I care about a phone context since I always have at least one phone nearby? Same with a computer (though a keyboard context for writing might be good).
  5. How much of the rest of my time is spent in Emacs?
  6. How to keep safe, secure, and available?

The last shall be the first, the first shall be the second, and the rest shall fall where they may.

6 – I will keep my org files in Wuala. My mobileorg publishing will be done with Dropbox. Both are cross platform and cross OS options. Wuala is encrypted for data in transit and data at rest with me holding the keys. Dropbox isn’t as secure, but it is the only method I can make work of disseminating the data between my device platforms. Mobileorg allows for simple encryption for the data in transit. I hope the developers continue to improve it and maybe offer different cloud storage options. I don’t like using external services for such things. There is no similar solution in-house, and no explicit prohibition of a public option for tangentially relevant data. Until there is a viable internal option I am using the tools that are available. Having two separate solutions will allow provider diversity, though I could integrate an internal SharePoint option later. I continue to take appropriate actions, such as checks for data integrity and

1- I think Org-mode and Emacs will stay my tools of choice, at least for now. I need to affix GTD as a habit more than I have. The tool used is largely irrelevant. When I bust out org-mode I not only feel like I have a better grasp on what I am doing, I actually accomplish things in a more strategic fashion. This is especially true in comparison to my Inbox. I always get burned when I use my Inbox as my todo list.

5 – Quite a lot of my time is spent in Emacs, actually, considering that my technical role is wafer thin. It is almost always running. Probably my best use is again with org-mode, but for doing presentations. I like drafting it in org-mode before subjecting it to MS PowerPoint or Keynote. It’s my external editor for Lotus Notes and my default for many file types in Windows. I used to use it for my Twitter client. I should dust that off. Emacs’ w3 is a great distraction-free web browser.

4 – I will ditch contexts in my GTD except for two – detached and keyboard. “Detached” (or maybe untethered) is for those times when I don’t need a network connection to work. These contexts should have all of the information needed stored locally. The other, keyboard, I need as mentioned above. Other tasks I can complete using an iPhone, iPad, Android device, or whatever. These contexts will be managed as tags on existing entries prefixed with the ‘at’ sign (@).

3 – Sharing information outside of org-mode is both incredibly easy and insanely difficult. org-mode uses flat text files. Internal logic presents the data in an efficient manner. While any old program can open text files, they can’t necessarily understand them. I think I can get around this by setting up agenda views published to HTML on the corporate SharePoint portal, for example. My group uses Lotus Notes for email and calendar, so I need to come up with a workable way to share at least the calendar stuff. Email I’m less concerned about at the moment, though if I can convince the powers that be to turn on secure IMAP …

2 – How to structure the file(s)? This is really where things go wonky for me and why I kept it for last. I love the idea of "one file to rule them all". A monolithic file will eventually get too big, too unwieldy, and too vertical for me to get Emacs and org-mode to handle it all. Too many small files takes the vertical problem and makes it horizontal. Having a separate file for each project, for example, is a great idea until one note or one task needs to be shared between two or more projects. My current sparse files option might be the best, but not how they’re currently setup. Notes and tasks need to be together.

I think my concept is sound if I just use it.

I will kick things off with three main files:,, and All of my daily capture will go into the inbox. All of my current stuff will reside in world. Nothing should go into world directly. Older items will go into archive. Daily I will empty my inbox. Weekly, monthly, and annually I will review the world. I will quarterly and annually review the archive. I will also have a “Someday/Maybe”-type file and a “reading room”-type file. I was going to have some miscellaneous files, but I don’t want to go too far afield on what I can see. Miscellaneous files may end up being out of normal view. I will reconsider this as things go.

I will keep my work calendar in Notes for the time being. If I can figure out a way to automate sharing the calendar between that and org-mode/Emacs calendar I will do so.

I will make projects contexts, tags prefixed with a ‘@’. A note or a task can be tagged with as many as needed.

Another thing I can do, and this is something of an aside but an important one, is I will be able to open notes and tasks associated with my team (and others). So, when I’m with them on the phone or standing at their desk I should be able to pull everything up about them as a tag filter across projects and everything. That kills off the far too frequent "What was that other thing I wanted to talk with you about?" query.

is reflection and rambling course of action brings up another issue, one that is not specific to any tool or method. I need to capture better information. I had a conversation with one of my bosses not too long ago. It was a long chat. There were many concrete tasks I needed to deliver. One item should have been concrete and easy to do but I wrote it down incorrectly. By the time I got back to it in a late review I couldn’t remember the "what" and "why" of the conversation though I had a time frame.

I may have mentioned somewhere that I was a Journalism and Broadcasting major in college. I trained for capturing accurate information. I did this by asking six simple questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

Why I don’t do this at certain times is fodder for yet another post yet another time.

Some of you may ask, "But I don’t need all of those when capturing data, do I"?

No. A good rule of thumb is no fewer than three. In my vague example above what, when, and why would probably have been sufficient. Who was a given value of "me". Where and how wasn’t part of the equation.

My management style rarely has a "How" or "Where" component to tasks I assign, though from time to time one of those can be introduced. Since I travel constantly for work, the "Where" bit can play a role.

Before sharing your data with others, especially higher ups and customers, you need all W’s answered. You should have references where possible.

I think the most frustrating thing around this process is that it’s not as simple as it should be. A colleague of mine constantly rails against managing to the exception (pot-kettle-black; another post), and he’s right, but how do you define what constitutes an exception. That takes us off into yet another post for another day.

Am I addressing my personal life, such as it is, in this? Is this actually going to help or hurt or make no difference? I won’t know until I take the plunge. One thing that I might alter will be the Someday/Maybe stuff. Items for my employer I will want to separate from my personal stuff. There will be an occasional overlap. I’ll deal with those as they come.

Another issue that is still out there is the data. If I leave my employer, who owns the data? If I mix the personal with the professional with the employer-specific stuff, how do I divorce it if need be?

I need to make a task to roll in my aborted OneNote experiment. I tried using OneNote. It’s a surprisingly great tool. The lack of an easy-to-use internal reference system, the inability to dock it at login, difficulty in reorganizing or refiling data, no overarching view of tasks, and its GUI-only nature limits its usefulness. Maybe if I was on Outlook & Exchange and never left a Windows/iOS environment it would work better. It does have a lot of things I quite like: templates (though not as easy to use as they should be), audio capture as part of note taking, tabs & pages & notebooks as its metaphor, OS-integrated capture, some third party tools to fill some gaps, and integration with SharePoint and MSN/MS Live with strong encryption for the data in transit (not sure about data-at-rest). I can see using it as a replacement for org-mode, but it will take a lot of work and decisions by people senior to me to make it a true replacement for work.

Two other things play a role in org-mode: Emacs calendar/diary and BBDB. The calendar is as described. The Big Brother DataBase (BBDB) is another animal. BBDB is a contact list. More value comes from using it in an integrated Emacs environment. My contacts are all over the place and in serious need of review. BBDB will be my main contact repository. I can move things in and out somewhat easily.

This post exceeded any reasonable expectation for length, breadth, and buckshot content.

It brings up another important point. I should be able to edit posts in Emacs, too! Someday/Maybe, perhaps. There must be a WordPress option for Emacs.

I have some concrete deliverables from this, some things to work on, and some “nice-to-haves” down the road.

Here endeth the … whatever this is.

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About Paul

I’m a Detroit expat recently returned from Tokyo living in Chattanooga. I’m a consulting security professional and father of two. I promise that my views and politics are mine; not yours or my employer’s or anyone’s. I follow no party or affiliation or anything. My things are released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license unless otherwise stated.

0 thoughts on “Refactoring Emacs’ Org-mode, GTD, Information Capture, Good Data, 6 W’s, & the Kitchen Sink

  1. I face similar questions and was glad to find this post.
    I am obligated to be in an Outlook/Exhange environment, but I use emacs for Windows and various portable tools to do what I need to.
    I, too, carry personal and professional in one place–for me, one monolothic file with primary headings of inbox, calendar, projects, reference, read and review, and scrap (a type of recycle bin or scratch paper, if you will.)
    I secretly hope that you continued to use org-mode.
    My biggest obstacle is the ubiquity. I capture on paper easily (partly because whipping out a laptop to capture a phone number would be… odd), but I capture a LOT. Choosing appropriate tools for such a situation could be the start of my own blog.
    Anyhow, I appreciated your idea of inbox, world, archive, and reading room. That will save me from lots of irrelevant searches when Im trying to track down a particular note (thanks to having org and emacs manuals and read and review all in the same file).
    Have fun

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